Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Rock Heritage

John Cale and The Heritage Orchestra perform Paris 1919
Royal Festival Hall – 5th March 2010

Having never seen the great John Cale live before, and with the knowledge that he would be performing his superb ‘Paris 1919’ album in full, I’d been eagerly anticipating this concert for some time. I use the word ‘concert’ rather than gig because that is very much what it was – a stately, reverential and, for the most part, somewhat uninspired recreation of Cale’s 1973 hymn to cold war Europe, coupled with a rather short and ungenerous second half of more adventurous pieces for the band.

‘Paris 1919’ is rightly regarded as one of Cale’s more conventional albums. Whilst it has rich orchestral arrangements, it’s very much a set of melodic pop songs and there is very little hint of Cale’s interest in the avant garde, or of the poised confrontation of The Velvet Underground. The recording, however, is beautifully nuanced and with members of Little Feat in the original band, even the languid ballads threaten to tip into a lithe groove.

Yet when the band finally joins the orchestra onstage after a somewhat unprofessional and uncertain pause, the opening ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ simply lacks punch. Perhaps it’s something to do with drummer Michael Jerome playing an unconventional kit, largely sticking to brushes and providing the kick from a cajon. The problem isn’t confined just to this song, unfortunately, with the entire rendition of the album seeming slick, over-rehearsed and lacking any injection of immediacy or inspiration.

The arrangements seemed to suffer from overthinking how best to combine band and orchestra. Perhaps wary of cutting through the string section, guitarist Dustin Boyer repeatedly resorted to a clich├ęd and grating distorted rock ballad guitar sound that undermined the sensitivities of the songs. Rather than touching or affecting, the album’s ballads ended up overcooked and bordering on histrionic. The album’s livelier moments, such as ‘Macbeth’ (moved to the end of the set presumably to create a rousing finale), seemed to lack teeth. Only ‘Graham Greene’, one of my least favourite songs on the album, seemed to achieve a fresh impetus – less playful but more insistent than the studio version.

If the original recording has a significant fault, it’s that Cale’s consistently double tracked vocals are often uncomfortably flat. Tonight, his voice sounded stronger, more confident and more articulate. The intelligent, wry wordplay of much of the album’s lyrics at least came through with clarity and purpose. This made it all the more unfortunate that the sound of the musicians was so muddy and undefined. At one point, a near constant low level feedback from the horn section threatened to completely destroy the mood.

After a short break (the brevity of which certainly caught out those who insisted on another trip to the bar), the group returned to perform some choice selections from Cale’s career. These included a wiry, claustrophobic interpretation of The Velvet Underground’s ‘Femme Fatale’ (intercut with ‘Rosegarden Funeral of Sores’), a somewhat dreamy ‘Amsterdam’ and an outstanding, clamorous, deeply weird deconstruction of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. In this short section of the concert, the band played so much more intuitively and intelligently, crafting thrilling and futuristic music. I would have appreciated more of this. Both orchestra and bombast return for a rapturously applauded ‘Hedda Gabbler’.

The concert has been well received elsewhere in the press, and the audience afforded Cale a rather uncritical standing ovation. Yet, to me, it all seemed rather perfunctory and ungenerous – an example of getting a job done rather than anything more artistically adventurous. The performance of ‘Paris 1919’, curiously unsatisfying as it was, didn’t even provide the warm glow of nostalgia one might reasonably expect. Perhaps there is a broader problem with this recent trend of performing classic albums in full – but if classical audiences pay to see complete symphonies, I don’t really see the difference. For a large portion of popular music’s history now, the album has been the nearest equivalent to a full composed work, and reports of its death are no doubt greatly exaggerated. Still, any attempt to produce a tasteful facsimile of the original work, rather than something living, breathing and challenging, ought to be avoided at all costs.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Enough To Get You Drunk

Joanna Newsom - Have One On Me (Drag City)

Joanna Newsom seems to be one of those artists about whom writers are incapable of exercising nuance – she’s a polarising figure who has taken to making grand, indulgent and idiosyncratic works that demand to be either loved or hated. There’s little room for indifference. Looking back over my rather cursory review of Joanna Newsom’s last album ‘Ys’, I wasn’t quite as dismissive as I’d thought I’d been, but I did question the lack of perspective and distance deployed in criticism of the record. Music critics (mostly males it must be admitted) seemed to veer into rhapsodic swoons at Newsom’s unrestrained verbosity and the romantic sweep of Van Dyke Parks’ grandiose arrangements.

I’ve been a good deal more agnostic about Newsom. ‘The Milk Eyed Mendor’ had some endearing songs but was undermined by Newsom’s grating childlike whimsy. ‘Ys’, on the other hand, was a bizarre detour into a world of excess. With barely a moment free from the piercing sound of Newsom’s voice, certainly an acquired taste, it seemed to me oppressive and not especially likeable. It was rare to find a record rooted in conventional harmony and folk traditions that also sounded so confrontational and difficult.

‘Have One On Me’ sounds even more daunting on paper – more than two hours of Newsom’s music spread across three CDs! She simply does not know how to edit herself. In reality, though, it’s a much more accessible album than ‘Ys’ and arguably a more artistic one too. There are no Van Dyke Parks arrangements here, instead that responsibility falls to Ryan Francesconi, leader of Newsom’s touring band. The arrangements here are occasionally intricate, but always serve to complement or enhance the song. On five of the eighteen tracks, Newsom even forsakes the harp in favour of the piano. Most importantly, these factors combine to ensure that there is a great range in texture and dynamic that had been largely absent from ‘Ys’.

Also immediately noticeable are the changes in Newsom’s vocal delivery. Apparently she underwent surgery for vocal chord nodules last year – I’m not sure whether it’s this or a conscious decision that has prompted the greater restraint. She now sings with a much greater depth of feeling, poise and soulfulness. Sometimes the delivery is so subtle it’s almost ghostly, a big contrast from Newsom’s previous tendency to impose her personality with unwavering intensity. She still sounds quirky, for sure, but now far more naturally so and much less irritating as a result. There’s also much greater attention paid to phrasing, and there are fewer moments when Newsom seems to be forcing her flighty lyrics to scan. The squeakier, less controlled side of her voice threatens to re-emerge on the third disc, but it sounds more surprising as a result of her control elsewhere.

Newsom also displays a penchant for direct and simple melodies here, as well as her gradually unfolding, lengthy linear narratives that will be familiar to devotees of ‘Ys’. The uncharacteristically concise ‘On A Good Day’ resembles a hymn and elsewhere it sounds as if Newsom might be crafting her own traditional folk songs or nursery rhymes. This is not a criticism – a lot of these songs have direct and clear charm. On much of ‘Have One On Me’, Newsom appears to have developed the artistry and self belief to be simple but not simplistic. It’s pretty clear that she herself recognises the difference.

There’s so much material here it’s hard to know where to start. The most striking tracks are those that present the clearest sense of departure for Newsom. There’s the gently rolling road song ‘Good Intentions Paving Company’, on which Newsom sings with a chorus of her band members, phrasing the vocals in line with the song’s harmonic rhythm. It’s light and bouncy but, for those used to Newsom’s harp and voice based performances, also curiously strident. It also takes a completely unexpected twist into romantic territory as Newsom realises that the long journey has to end somewhere. The song is driven by Newsom’s basic piano style, not unlike Dylan’s untutored gospel touch on ‘New Morning’, and by the limber, creative drumming of Neal Morgan.

Similarly impressive is ‘Baby Birch’, which begins as a plaintive, gospel tinged ballad but gradually builds a delicate momentum, punctuated with bursts of electric guitar. What is most striking here is that, in contrast to pretty much all of ‘Ys’, ‘Baby Birch’ is full of space and calm – moments where Newsom no longer feels she has to browbeat us with linguistic or musical clutter. She has the confidence here to let her ideas unfold slowly and gracefully.

There are many tracks that take off where ‘Ys’ left off. They begin with Newsom alone with her harp, or have her accompanied by a string or woodwind section, and feature dense, sprawling fantasies brimming with alliteration. Disc three probably presents the more challenging of these rapturous fantasias, including the uncompromising, exaggerated ‘Esme’. Perhaps the most successful example is the extraordinary ‘Go Long’, during which no lyrical conceit seems too bizarre or wild for Newsom (she is carried in on a ‘palanquin’ made from the naked bodies of many beautiful women). Her disconcerting intensity is softened, however, by a spine-tingling integrated mesh of harp and kora.

Indeed, the instrumentation throughout hints at a wider range of influences, many of which add texture, depth and nuance to Newsom’s idiosyncratic visions. Andrew Strain’s trombone is a particularly welcome presence, adding warmth and a hint of New Orleans to ‘You and Me, Bess’ and ‘Good Intentions Paving Company’. Newsom’s piano playing, slightly untutored and unsophisticated, has something of the gospel-infused urgency of Dylan’s piano playing on the still underrated ‘New Morning’. The closing ‘Does Not Suffice’ is therefore unexpectedly soulful. The hints of Eastern musical flavours on ‘Kingfisher’ are similarly unpredictable and charming. Newsom’s range on ‘Have One On Me’ is broader and more inclusive.

Lyrically, there are still certainly moments when Newsom’s insistence on luxuriating in language leads to uncomfortable displays of verbose banality (‘her faultlessly etiolated fish-belly face’ on ‘No Provenance’ is a line that sticks out like a sore thumb). However, the overall impression left by ‘Have One On Me’ is that Newsom has balanced her expansive dreamy reveries with a new lyrical directness and self reflection. There’s the affecting pleas at the end of ‘Good Intentions…’ (‘I only want for you to pull over and hold me, til I can’t remember my own name’) and Jackrabbits (‘tell me that I can love you again’), or there’s the preoccupation with the idea of home on songs like ‘In California’ or ‘Autumn’. Then there’s the celebration of drinking, not only confined to the extraordinary title track.

Given that I listened to ‘Ys’ only three times before giving up on it and confining it to the shelves, it’s entirely surprising just how much I’ve wanted to revel in the plethora of ideas and riches on display here. For anyone previously averse to Newsom, I recommend keeping an open mind – ‘Have One On Me’ is indulgent and extravagant for sure, but it’s also deeply touching and brilliantly imaginative. It’s the kind of record no-one else would dare to make. The question, of course, is where she could possibly go from here – one hopes it doesn’t all result in a dreadful hangover.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Caught In The Waves

Corinne Bailey Rae - The Sea

The fact that I'm sitting down to write a review of a Corinne Bailey Rae album comes as something of a surprise to me. I should state for the record that I don't have any particular axe to grind with Ms. Rae, it's simply that her debut was far too light and frothy a concoction to really have registered with me, although her Jools Holland performances certainly showed she had vocal talents. Her follow up album 'The Sea' is a totally different story.

It would be very tempting to write about the sad and untimely death of Bailey Rae's partner Jason Rae and how it has informed this album. Whilst it is a record touched by grief and loss, much of the writing had been done before the event, and certain songs have probably been made more poignant by the tragedy. There can be no doubt that this must have affected Bailey Rae tremendously - perhaps some of the pain was poured into completing this surprisingly powerful, dramatic and engaging album. But this is speculation - what seems more important from the context of Bailey Rae's developing career is that she seems to have been left free to make precisely the album she wanted to make. So many different styles inform this liberated, free flowing music. There are hints at Bailey Rae's love of jazz (particularly Billie Holliday records), but also material drawn from the folk world, and even from indie rock. The seductive opener 'Are You Here?' begins with an electric guitar riff that could have been drawn from a PJ Harvey record. Indeed, it comes as something of a surprise to hear Bailey Rae's soft, playful vocal delivery over it.

This sophisticated, superbly executed music is quite some way from the coffee table blandness with which Bailey Rae has been, perhaps unfairly, associated. It's a record that suggests that of all the recent heavily hyped, BBC sound-of-the-year approved female solo artists, Bailey Rae may well turn out to be the one with long term artistic potential. Artists that spring to mind when listening to 'The Sea' include Joni Mitchell, John Martyn and Terry Callier - the kind of solo artists that blurred genre boundaries with effortless, intoxicating ease.

Even the single 'I'd Do It All Again', itself a powerfully linear, deeply expressed and passionate song, gives little indication of the quality of the writing and the ensemble performances on 'The Sea'. The music is sensitively delivered and thoughtfully textured. A song like 'Feels Like The First Time', which initially threatens to be generic summery funk-lite unfolds to reveal a slightly exotic, menacing chorus with vaguely threatening string lines.

More surprising are the upbeat, sultry and insistent pieces such as 'The Blackest Lily'. With Hammond organ and spiky electric guitar, the song has a slightly retro vibe, but everything about the delivery is so righteous and confident that it ends up being thoroughly irresistible. Perhaps the breezy pop of 'Paris Nights/New York Mornings' is slightly out of place on an otherwise intense and rapturous set of songs, but the sheer panache of the band performances make it seem necessary.

Perhaps the album's greatest strengths lie in its lush, rhapsodic ballads, which are emotional without becoming histrionic. Bailey Rae has a control and delicacy that suggests turmoil in the most unforced and convincing of ways. 'I Would Like To Call It Beauty' is particularly beautiful - sensual and gentle but compelling from start to finish, whilst 'Love's On Its Way' gradually builds into something somehow both overwhelming and underplayed. The closing title track is aptly named - the sensation of listening to it is akin to being washed with waves of water. It feels like writing it may have been a cathartic, purgatorial experience.

There will always be some people for whom Bailey Rae is just not edgy enough a personality. Yet these people will miss out by unfairly ignoring this excellent album. Whilst her soft, sometimes childlike vocals could sit very comfortably in lightweight presentation, the contexts Bailey Rae has chosen here are a good deal more mature and adventurous. A great deal of attention has been paid to the detail of the arrangements and the sounds of particular instruments and to the overall mood. 'The Sea' is an elemental triumph.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Celebrating a Polymath

Ian Carr - A Celebration of a Life in Music
Nikki Yeoh
Art Themen, Norma Winstone, Michael Garrick, Don Rendell, Dave Green, Trevor Tomkins
Musicians from Royal College of Music, Guy Barker, Tim Whitehead
Nucleus Revisited: Geoff Castle, Mark Wood, Rob Statham, Nic France, Tim Whitehead, Chris Batchelor, Phil Todd, plus guests John Marshall and Ray Russell
Queen Elizbeth Hall, 23rd February


Given his achievements as a jazz musician, a composer, a pioneer of jazz-rock fusion and also as a writer and educator, this concert celebration of the great Ian Carr (who died from Alzheimer’s disease last year) was always going to be an ambitious task. Luckily, it had been carefully planned, satisfying those in the audience who knew Ian well (I myself was one of his students at WAC in North London) and offering a neat snapshot for the uninitiated.

The words often seemed as vital and important as the music. The musings and memories of Nikki Yeoh, Julian Joseph and Michael Garrick captured Ian’s character (his breadth of knowledge, his passions for literature as well as music, his encouragement and his occasionally acid tongue) with real detail and affection, with Garrick even veering into an uncanny impression.

The concert opened with a short solo set from Nikki Yeoh, a star student of Ian’s, who spoke openly and honestly about his inspirational teaching. Her ‘Dance of Two Small Bears’ seemed appropriately indebted to Keith Jarrett (who, along with Miles Davis, represented the pinnacle of musical achievement for Ian), delightfully playful and vibrant but with a deeper, more romantic substance.

Yeoh was followed by a group lead by Michael Garrick, and featuring members of the great Rendell-Carr quintet. The rhythm section of Dave Green and Trevor Tomkins seemed more pensive and less propulsive, but compositions such as ‘Dusk Fire’ and ‘Voices’ still have a commanding resonance. The involvement of the great vocalist Norma Winstone elevated the performance, even if she occasionally threatened to interject too frequently. The appearance of an aged but still powerful Don Rendell drew deserved cheers from the audience.

The second half began with arguably the concert’s highlight, the London premier of Carr’s work for jazz trumpet, saxophone and small string orchestra ‘Northumbrian Sketches’, originally commissioned twenty five years ago. These pieces vividly capture a sense of time and place and the writing, whilst unassuming, is absorbed in the blues and rhythmically driven. Soloists Guy Barker and Tim Whitehead played with clarity and feeling and conductor Mike Gibbs controlled the ensemble with the very minimum of physical effort. Hearing a string orchestra swing will probably always remain an unusual experience. In this case, it was also a richly enjoyable one.

The finale of a very long evening was provided by a large ensemble based on the Nucleus fusion groups of the 70s and 80s. It was extremely loud, and dominated by distorted guitar and a tightly grooving rhythm section (with Rob Statham on bass and the excellent Nic France on drums). Geoff Castle’s keyboards, especially the acoustic piano, were sadly occasionally overwhelmed. The short selection of Ian’s pieces was judicious, including ‘Mister Jelly Lord’, ‘Selena’ (inspired by Miles Davis’ ‘All Blues’ and writer for Ian’s daughter), ‘Lady Bountiful’, ‘Roots’ and a majestic ‘Things Past’. I must admit to preferring the more intuitive and considered improvising of special guest guitarist Ray Russell to the histrionic shredding from Mark Wood, although the roof-raising finale featuring two guitarists and two drummers (John Marshall joining Nic France) was as vibrant and brilliantly chaotic as one of Ian’s WAC workshops. Tim Whitehead’s exultant solo on the closing ‘Things Past’ was both fittingly emotional and musically articulate.